Slate/New Scientist published a short interview today with iRobot CEO Colin Angle in which he says that more than 80% of people who own Roombas (vacuum cleaning robots) have given them names. Angle suggests that this naming is based on the experience of having the Roomba; before purchase, people can’t understand why they would name a vacuum cleaner.
That made me sit back and think, what non-sentient objects have I named? I usually name my car. My computers get names, but that’s practical for network identification. There’s an unused Roomba in our house — it belonged to my husband pre-marriage, so it’s my step-robot, and I found it took more trouble than just running a vacuum cleaner over the floor — that never had a name. My favorite appliances don’t have names. I might coo “Le Creuset” like the name of a lover when I pull down my cherry red Dutch oven, but that’s nothing more than a brand.
Perhaps we name items that we perceive as having some degree of autonomy and self-determination. A Roomba can appear to have a personality as it twirls and turns and bumps around the room. Each car I’ve owned feels unique and mechanical performance differences can seem like behavior. Giving these things names changes the way we interact with them and talk about them. Sometimes the naming can simply be an attempt at humor, like the blender my friend dubbed Daisy, because she is primarily used for making frozen margaritas. It could make an interesting study to analyze the gender assigned to various objects through this naming process, particularly in the English language where nouns are not inherently gendered.
Anyway, the interview is short but touches on some intriguing concepts beyond this topic, including a bit about iRobot’s new telepresence robot, the Ava 500. While you’re on iRobot’s site checking that out, click around: I find their product line fascinating and glimpse toward the future of robots we’ll soon interact with in everyday life.